Prigozhin's downfall heralds Wagner's eclipse

Any successor is unlikely to restore former glory as Putin strengthens his grip on power

Russian President Vladimir Putin delivers a speech on the same day that Wagner chief Yevgeny Prigozhin was killed. EPA
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Yevgeny Prigozhin’s demise almost certainly heralds a similar fate for the Wagner group, the mercenary business that was both his making and his undoing.

That raises the question of what impact the group’s likely termination will have on President Vladimir Putin, Russia’s political elite, Ukraine and Wagner’s other activities

The assassination – if that is what it was – will have significant repercussions. Will those who fear they are next in line decide to make a move? Will the support of the ultranationalist military blogger community go silent or become more vociferous in their anti-Kremlin posts?

Regardless of who steps into Prigozhin's shoes to lead Wagner, that person will probably lead a severely emasculated outfit set to be beholden to the Kremlin.

But it is also moment of risk for Mr Putin, although probably a calculated one for a figure who has based and sustained his rule on violence and retribution.

Putin reasserted

The events of Prigozhin’s June 24 mutiny both unnerved and undermined Mr Putin’s rule. During the long hours of that Saturday, there was panic among the Kremlin elite that they could not hold off Wagner’s armoured column bearing down on Moscow.

It also became very apparent that senior elements in Russia’s defence and security structure were silent in their support of their leader.

Gen Sir Richard Barrons, Britain’s former chief of Joint Forces Command, told The National that in the short to medium term, Wednesday's events “strengthen Putin’s grip on power” in Russia.

“It will make anyone who might have thought they could put their head above the parapet to think very carefully, unless they know for sure there's a lot of people coming with them,” he said

Mr Putin has, after a tricky period, reinforced his image as a vengeful strongman who remains unconcerned about due legal procedure.

“Putin’s almost certain order for the Russian MoD [Ministry of Defence] to shoot down Prigozhin’s plane is likely a public attempt to reassert his dominance and exact vengeance for the humiliation from the Wagner group’s armed rebellion,” stated the Institute for the Study of War think tank.

The assassination of Wagner’s top leadership was “likely the final step” to end Wagner as an independent organisation, it added.

Vengeance is mine

In the longer term, reasonable Russians will see that they are “in the grip of a regime which is now out of their control and a pariah”.

Prigozhin's elimination was only a “question of time and mode” after he challenged Mr Putin and his premise for invading Ukraine, said the Russia and Ukraine expert Orysia Lutsevych of Chatham House think tank

“Alive, he was always a threat and a reminder that Putin is weak,” she said. “It remains to be seen if Prigozhin's supporters just swallow a bitter pill or further grow their ranks.”

Former head of MI6, Sir John Sawers, told the BBC that the death sent a message for everyone to “toe the line because if you step out of line you will be suppressed”.

It was a clear demonstration that “if you mess with me, you end up in a grave,” said Benedict Manzin, an analyst at Sibylline intelligence group.

“Some of the early signs coming out of Russia are that the political class are happy with this as Prigozhin was unpopular with them,” he said.

But it could also push those who oppose Mr Putin into action, Mr Manzin said.

“It creates an incentive for any other hardliners who might think, ‘oh, maybe I'm next on the chopping block’, to start acting now because if they don't act first their time is limited.”

Wagner’s revenge?

The group’s online channels were full of bluster that their leader’s death would not go unpunished and its “council of commanders” was apparently meeting to decide a statement on Wagner’s future plans.

Grey Zone, a Telegram channel with close links to Wagner, warned that Prigozhin’s death would have “catastrophic consequences”.

“The people who gave the order do not understand the mood in the army and morale at all,” it said.

But ultimately, the mercenary chief’s death may well have reinforced Mr Putin’s position by ensuring plotters “who may have planned to oppose Putin” will have “taken note of Prigozhin’s ultimate fate”, ISW stated.

Servility not competence

Putin is clearly content to dispose of his most competent commanders while his country is at war, said Brig Ben Barry of the IISS think tank.

“He is now displaying a track record for getting rid of people who are competent, which isn't going to do much for his war effort,” Brig Barry said.

“In some respects, Wagner was the most effective Russian force in Ukraine even though the mutiny was destabilising.”

Prigozhin’s death came on the same day that it was officially announced that the brutal but effective Gen Sergey Surovikin, nicknamed “General Armageddon” and “the butcher of Syria”, had been demoted after his arrest following the mutiny.

The same fate came to Gen Ivan Popov, commander of the well-regarded VKV airborne forces, who was removed from his post for complaining about equipment and morale issues.

“Putin’s Russia is like Game of Thrones or Macbeth, where anyone who’s considered a threat is getting whacked,” said Brig Barry.

Ms Lutsevych argued that with the potential of Ukraine military advances “degrading Russia’s armed forces”, they would “only deepen” the conflict within Moscow’s security structure.

But Gen Barrons suggested that the action meant Mr Putin was “going to continue to tough this war out”.

“Putin isn't in any immediate danger of losing much Ukraine territory he's taken and in no danger at all of being defeated on the battlefield at least this year,” he said.

Comeback denied

The details of the deal that ended the mutiny remain unclear, but it is likely that Prigozhin was told to keep a low profile either in Belarus, Africa or Russia itself.

That he appeared in his first high-profile video since the mutiny, apparently shot in Africa and broadcast on the day before his death, suggests that he was attempting a comeback.

After two months of gradually degrading Wagner’s structure, by luring its commanders into Kremlin-backed private military companies or diminishing their standing, particularly through lower payouts, Mr Putin might have decided that the time was right for termination.

Furthermore, the impact on Wagner’s operations in Africa would be “very limited”, said Mr Manzin, as mercenaries there would probably have little contact with Prigozhin and were more interested in their pay-cheque than their boss.

Moon envy

It could be that Mr Putin chose August 23, two months since Prigozhin began his rebellion, to exact his revenge.

That he allegedly did it with S-300 air defences to shoot down the jet would also avenge those in the air force angered by Wagner’s destruction of helicopters and an aircraft during the mutiny.

The timing was also curious in that it overshadowed India’s successful lunar landing that had followed Russia’s moon lander crash on Sunday. Mr Putin had also suffered the humiliation of addressing the Brics conference via video-link due to the international warrant for his arrest.

It also relegated from the front pages an extraordinary Ukrainian special forces mission in which troops made an amphibious landing on Crimea and destroyed the highly advanced Russian S-400 air defence system, that was captured on a drone that was also undetected.

“It can't have hurt that this will serve as just the distraction Russia's state media needs from the country's humiliation by India landing on the Moon where Russia failed spectacularly to do so a few days before,” said Keir Giles, a senior Russia expert at Chatham House.

Updated: August 27, 2023, 8:14 PM